Saturday, June 6, 2015

This Is How Close The Mets Are To Being Crazy Good

Matt Harvey smiles as he realizes just how good this team could be very soon.  (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

On Friday, Jonathon Niese allowed three runs in six innings of work in a game that was eventually lost by the Mets, 7-2.  The game marked just the sixth time all season that the Mets lost when their starting pitcher was credited with a quality start (six or more innings pitched, no more than three earned runs allowed).  By contrast, the Mets have won 27 times in games where the starter recorded a quality start.  That gives the team a 27-6 record in quality starts and a lowly 3-20 mark when the starting pitcher failed to give a quality performance.

To put this in layman's terms, the Mets have won over 80% of the time when their starting staff has kept them in games.  But once the starter falls apart, it becomes nearly impossible for the offense to bail him out.

I wanted to know how important quality starts have been for the Mets in determining where the team has finished in the season's final standings, so I did some research on the topic.  My findings were not only stunning, but proved just how close the Mets currently are to being one of the top teams in the league, as long as the offense doesn't let them down.

First, I wanted to see how many Mets teams have recorded 100 or more quality starts in a single season.  There were a dozen such teams, as shown by the chart below.

Of the 12 teams to reach triple digits in quality starts, nine finished with winning records and four reached the postseason, including both World Championship teams and all three 100-win squads.  The three teams that posted 100 or more quality starts, but still finished below .500 did so in 1968, 1974 and 2012.

Clearly, all three of those sub-.500 teams had excellent pitching, as evidenced by the overwhelming numbers of quality starts.  But one other thing they had in common was their anemic offense.

The 1968 campaign was known as "The Year of the Pitcher", as hurlers such as Bob Gibson (1.12 ERA; the lowest mark in the modern era of baseball) and Denny McLain (31 wins; the last pitcher to win 30 or more games) posted career years on the mound.  But as much as hitters struggled against pitchers in 1968, no team fared worse at the plate than the New York Mets.

In the final season before the leagues split up into divisions, the Mets finished dead last in the National League in team batting average (.228), on-base percentage (.281) and slugging percentage (.315), scoring just 473 runs - which remains the fewest tallies in club history in a non-strike shortened campaign.

Similarly, the 1974 club made most of the pitchers they faced look like Sandy Koufax on the mound.  The Mets finished the year in last place or next-to-last place in nearly every offensive category, including hits, doubles, triples, stolen bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and of course, runs scored.  The pitcher who suffered the most for the Mets in 1974 was Jon Matlack, who incredibly tossed seven shutouts and posted a 2.41 ERA, but only managed a 13-15 won-loss record.  More than half of his wins in 1974 came in those seven shutouts, meaning that once he allowed a single run, his team's chances of winning went down the drain.

The third club with 100 quality starts that failed to post a winning record did it fairly recently.  In 2012, the Mets had the National League Cy Young Award winner in R.A. Dickey, who led the league in complete games, shutouts, innings pitched and strikeouts, as well as recording quality starts in 27 of his 33 starts.  They also had a staff that included Johan Santana, who pitched the team's first and only no-hitter, and Jonathon Niese, who quietly had the best season of his career, going 13-9 with a 3.40 ERA and 22 quality starts.  In addition, the 2012 campaign saw the debut of Matt Harvey, who dazzled in his ten late-season starts (2.73 ERA, 70 Ks in 59.1 IP).  Of course, none of that could help the team achieve a winning record.  While it's true that the bullpen was part of the reason for the team's failure to have many happy recaps, the offense didn't help much either.  The team batted .249 and finished outside of the league's top ten in home runs, stolen bases, runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Now let's take a look at the teams that posted the highest winning percentages in games where a starting pitcher recorded a quality start.

Once again, the teams that took advantage of quality starts were among the best in franchise history.  Eight of the top ten teams won 88 or more games and six of those eight teams made the playoffs.  The two teams that didn't win at least 88 games were the 1994 Mets, who never finished their 162-game schedule due to the players strike and this year's club, who are on pace for just under 87 victories.

The 1994 squad had a wonderful one-two tandem atop the rotation in Bret Saberhagen and Bobby Jones.  The two right-handers combined to go 26-11 with a 2.93 ERA, accounting for nearly half of the team's 55 victories.  However, the team's offense sputtered for most of the abbreviated season finishing at or near the bottom of the league in hits, doubles, triples, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.  New York also had no speed to speak of, as bench player John Cangelosi led the team with five stolen bases.  Also, making contact wasn't exactly the team's forte, as the Mets led the league in strikeouts and were next-to-last in walks.

And that brings us to this year's squad, who currently is one of just two teams in franchise history to win 80% of their quality starts - the other is the 1986 World Championship team.  With a rotation led by Bartolo Colon, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the 2015 Mets have been wonderful at limiting runs scored by the opposition.  Unfortunately, the hitters have prevented the team from winning games when the starting pitchers haven't been on top of their games.

The Mets have averaged 3.79 runs per game in the 56 contests they've played this year.  The last Mets team to score fewer runs per game was the 1992 squad, who crossed the plate 3.70 times per affair and famously became known as "The Worst Team Money Could Buy".  This year's team is also averaging 7.73 strikeouts per game.  The only teams with a higher strikeout rate were the last two - the 2013 and 2014 clubs.  It also doesn't help that the Mets are batting .241 and reaching base at a .305 clip.

It wouldn't take much for the 2015 Mets to win on a more consistent basis.  In fact, they don't even need a bunch of superstars to push them over the top.  They just need to be average at the plate.

The average National League hitter is putting up a .253/.314/.392 slash line.  Those numbers aren't spectacular, but they're much better than the current .241/.305/.367 slash line posted by the Mets.  In addition, the average National League team has 91 doubles, nine triples, 49 homers, 31 stolen bases and has scored 225 runs.  All of those numbers are greater than the 82 doubles, five triples, 47 homers, 19 stolen bases and 212 runs scored by the Mets.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to postulate that quality starts usually help a team win ballgames.  But even having a staff that produces quality starts by the bunches doesn't guarantee a playoff berth or even a winning record.  The 1968, 1974 and 2012 Mets know all about that.  And despite the season-ending players strike that put the kibosh on the 1994 campaign, Jeff Kent, his epic mustache, and rest of the '94 club could attest that winning the majority of the team's quality starts doesn't mean very much if the team can't win its non-quality starts.

The best teams in Mets history had great starting pitchers and could also hit the ball around the park.  That's why the 1969, 1986 and 1988 squads are the only ones to appear on both of the above charts.  Neither of those three teams were offensive juggernauts, but they each had a balanced attack at the plate.  The '69 squad finished in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories, yet still won 100 games.  That's all the 2015 Mets need.  If they're just mediocre at the plate, their starting pitching will carry them to places they've rarely been.

All the quality starts in the world won't produce a memorable season if the team's hitters are less than average at the plate.  A little mediocrity may be just what the doctor ordered to prescribe a successful season at Citi Field in 2015.

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